Pop Culture

Lizzo Talks the Crystal Flute, Myke Wright, More Yitty, and Changing That Lyric

In the nearly four hours that we talked in late July in her sunny living room, Lizzo was animated, serious, passionate, and hilariously funny. The singer-songwriter-dancer-flautist-actor and reality competition show host had just moved into her new house that week, but her belongings weren’t there yet. The empty built-in shelves awaited books and numerous awards—including three Grammys, an NAACP award, a Soul Train award, and a BET award. The only visible personal touches amidst the custom wooden furniture were two bouquets of roses and an Hermès blanket on one of the sofas.

We started to talk, and within the first 15 minutes, our conversation went directly to politics and women’s rights—specifically, the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade. Following that ruling, Lizzo donated $500,000 to Planned Parenthood and the National Network of Abortion Funds, and she had Live Nation, her tour promoter, match that with another $500,000. Political expression isn’t new to Lizzo; she’s been outspoken about police brutality and defunding the police, and she campaigned and voted for Joe Biden. “But the fact is,” she says, “I don’t know what they’re doing. I see they’re listening, but we’re in a post–thoughts and prayers society. Thoughts and prayers just don’t fucking cut it anymore.” She quickly adds, “I’m not condemning this current administration. I’m just very curious as to what kind of real steps they can take.”

So, when Lizzo asked the people at Planned Parenthood and National Network of Abortion Funds what real action she could take, the answer was money. “I know plenty of people who would have died if they hadn’t had that procedure,” she says, and while she tells me she hasn’t had a personal experience with it, she says, “It shouldn’t matter if I had a personal experience or knew somebody; it shouldn’t matter what my opinion is. Opinions is what got us in this shit in the first place—what people think people should be doing with their bodies. These days, we don’t create laws that support people having health care, never mind abortions. How about letting people have access and resources and mind their fucking business?”

ANGEL EYES
Lizzo, photographed on August 4 in Los Angeles. Headpiece by Luis De Javier; gloves by Tableaux Vivants; bracelets by Cartier; rings by Bulgari.
Photographs by CAMPBELL ADDY; Styled by PATTI WILSON

“The Supreme Court has politicized law and made it a weapon against human rights,” she adds. “An overwhelming amount of people did not agree with what the Supreme Court did. It’s about power and control. It’s about white male supremacy; it’s always been about white male supremacy in this country and the people who are complicit in helping uphold it—who are a lot of white women. The women who voted for Donald Trump. The façade that ‘America, we’re all in this together.’ No, we’re not. Black people have been dehumanized so much—especially Black women. I’d like to be an optimist, but I’m a chronically disappointed optimist,” she continues. “The way Black women have been treated in this country has made me feel very hopeless. I don’t think there was a time when [we] were treated fairly and with respect. If I see hope in this country, it will come from the accountability of the people who have the privilege. As a fat Black woman, this country has never gone forward; it’s stayed pretty much the same for me.”

Melissa Viviane Jefferson was born 34 years ago in Detroit, then moved to the Alief area of Houston when she was nine. She tells me it was more country than urban—it used to be all cow farms—and yes, she says, “There’s horses. There were kids who used to ride their horses to school. On like a half day—they’d come and show off their horse.” Did she have a horse? “Hell no! I don’t like to get on top of things,” she laughs. Nothing? “Oh, well…” and again, that laugh. As a teenager in Houston, Lizzo was terrified to drive for years because she was pulled over so many times. “The police were right behind you. They follow you all the way home. I stopped at every Stop sign, I’m smiling, being pleasant, I tried to do everything right. And they follow you home, then they veer off and they’re laughing. I’ve been pulled over, I’ve been handcuffed…. They do ‘License and registration, okay, everything looks good, you’re good to go.’ ‘Ma’am, can you just step out the vehicle real quick?’ ”

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She grew up in a household with her mother’s love for gospel music and her father listening to Elton John and Billy Joel. She was famously classically trained and may be the most notable flautist in popular music since Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. But, she tells me, she doesn’t think she plays the flute enough in her songs. (Two months after this interview, she played the 200-year-old crystal flute that had been owned by President James Madison. She played it at the Library of Congress and onstage at her Washington, DC, concert, and was thrilled that she made history. “When people look back at the crystal flute, they’re going to see me playing it,” Lizzo tells me. “They’re going to see that it was owned by James Madison, but they’re going to see how far we’ve had to come for someone like me to be playing it in the nation’s capital, and I think that that’s a cool thing. I don’t want to leave history in the hands of people who uphold oppression and racism. My job as someone who has a platform is to reshape history.”)

When she started to learn the flute, she recalls thinking, “I want to be the best fucking flute player ever. I was 12, but I wanted to take it all the way.” After dropping out of the University of Houston, she meandered around the city for a while, then officially moved to Minneapolis—with a stop in between to Denver to see her family, who had moved there from Houston. It was in Minneapolis, around 2011, that she seriously pursued her music career—joining rock bands (Prince invited her to perform at his Paisley Park compound one Easter Sunday). That’s when Lizzo became her stage name—a combination of her nickname Lissa and inspiration from Jay-Z’s lyrical “Izzo.” Her big-time success comes after at least 10 years of a lot of work, struggle, and self-doubt. Her catchy, chart-topping songs have been called uplifting and positive and most certainly danceable: Among others, her hit singles—“Truth Hurts,” “Good as Hell,” “About Damn Time”—will be staple items in clubs for a long time. But she’s had reviewers who’ve called her music corny, and I ask how she deals with bad reviews. “Don’t get me started on people critiquing art,” she says. “I just ignore them. My favorite thing is ‘You’re wrong.’ Your opinion wasn’t fact in the first place. My lyrics are so manic sometimes. ‘Cuz I Love You’ is ‘I’m going through it.’ ‘To Be Loved’ is like a panic attack. I’m doing real shit lyrically.” She goes to therapy and meditates to calm her anxiety and fear, and says, “When something good happens to me, I’m always looking over my shoulder for something bad. The years 2008–2012 had a lot of dark spots and trauma.” After the unexpected death of her father in 2009, she says she experienced “those gut-punching moments that set you up for a fear-based life. Nobody would believe that I was happy and confident all of the time. Saying words like ‘uplifting’ makes it sound saccharine and corny, but there’s a rawness to my lyrics that makes it more than uplifting.”

Disco legend musician-producer Nile Rodgers says, “Music is more than just entertainment; people are looking for nourishment to face the day, and they’re doing it to a soundtrack of great songs. Lizzo is an extraordinary artist. She’s made the last three years better with her great songs and attitude; she’s proving to the world over and over again that everything is possible.” And Oscar-winning songwriter, musician-producer Mark Ronson, who co-wrote “Break Up Twice” with Lizzo for Special, says, “I knew Lizzo was a great writer and phenomenal performer, but I wasn’t aware of how deep her musicality ran. The breadth of her range and influences is awesome.” And even though she sings about struggle and heartbreak, Lizzo says, “I’m not going to say anything negative in my music because I don’t want anything negative in my life. But I’ll speak on things that have happened, I’ll talk about hard times, and how I got through it.”

SHINE ON 
The “About Damn Time” singer dons a chrome reflective jacket emblazoned with “Go Gloria” in a nod to the feminist activist Gloria Steinem. Coat by Duran Lantink; jumpsuit by Balmain; boots by Harry Halim; gloves by Tableaux Vivants. Throughout: hair products by Dove; makeup products by Charlotte Tilbury; nail enamel by OPI.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CAMPBELL ADDY; STYLED BY PATTI WILSON

She was bullied in school and always felt “different”—although she isn’t sure if it was “good different” or “bad different.” While her schoolmates were getting into rap—which she loved, especially Houston rap—she was also listening to rock music: especially Radiohead. “It was a Black school,” she says, “mostly Black and brown, Caribbean, I had Nigerian friends.… They were all listening to what was on the radio: Usher, Destiny’s Child, Ludacris, and I was into Radiohead’s OK Computer. I kept it hidden, even when I was in a rock band, because I didn’t want to be made fun of by my peers—they’d yell, ‘White girl!’ Also, I was wearing these flared bell-bottoms with embroidery down it—and they’d say, ‘You look like a white girl, why do you want to look like a hippie?’ I wanted to be accepted so bad; not fitting in really hurt.” She adds, “My defense mechanism was humor. I became the class clown, that’s a kind of perceived confidence. And I have the type of social anxiety where I get louder and funnier the more stressed I am.”

At first she was intimidated to try to sing: “I grew up around gospel singers. I mean Jazmine Sullivan–type voices. My first singing voice was a rock voice in my progressive rock band when I was 19 or 20…very Mars Volta–influenced. That gave me the [vocal] power I’ve got now. It wasn’t until 2015 when I realized I have a very powerful singing voice with a lot of soul.” And yet, despite her early hits—2016’s “Good as Hell” and 2019’s “Juice”—and more than 7.7 billion global streams of her music, Lizzo says she still feels like an underdog. “I had to prove myself with Special that I can make good music.” Does she think she’s more grounded than some of her peers? “I don’t know how they’re doing. They could be as grounded as me or I could be seemingly grounded, or I could be flipping out. Look, I’m having a great time, but the things that I’ve experienced that I have to debunk or clarify, just by simply existing, looking like me, is an indication of progress. But it’s just the beginning of it. I was almost 30 when all this shit started popping up on me. I had a chance to fuck up as a teenager and in my 20s.… I’m so glad I had a chance to grow up and then get hit with all this shit.”

She’s close to her family; her mother, Sharie Jefferson-Johnson, went on the road early on in Lizzo’s career as co–tour manager with Lizzo’s brother Michael. Her mother says it was “the best time of my life. I didn’t know she could sing, but she always had a very distinct, powerful voice. And I knew she was going to use her voice for something.” Since her daughter’s success, their relationship has become stronger. “We talk on the phone every day,” her mother says. “I brought [her] up with good morals, so I don’t worry about her. I believe that family helps keep you grounded, so you remember your true purpose.”

Then there is Lizzo’s relationship with social media, where she engages with more than 25 million TikTok followers and almost 13 million on Instagram. Last June, after getting online backlash for including the ableist slur sp-z in the lyrics of her song “Grrrls” (…Hold my bag / Imma sp-z), she changed the lyrics to Do you see this shit / hold me back. She tells me, “I’d never heard it used as a slur against disabled people, never ever. The music I make is in the business of feeling good and being authentic to me. Using a slur is unauthentic to me, but I did not know it was a slur. It’s a word I’ve heard a lot, especially in rap songs, and with my Black friends and in my Black circles: It means to go off, turn up. I used [it as a] verb, not as a noun or adjective. I used it in the way that it’s used in the Black community. The internet brought it to my attention, but that wouldn’t [have been enough] to make me change something.” Some comedians and TV hosts weighed in: While Trevor Noah and W. Kamau Bell commended her, Charlamagne tha God disapproved of the change, and Jerrod Carmichael said artists shouldn’t change lyrics. As for the backlash to the backlash, Lizzo says, “Nina Simone changed lyrics—is she not an artist? Language changes generationally; Nina Simone said you cannot be an artist and not reflect the times. So am I not being an artist and reflecting the times and learning, listening to people, and making a conscious change in the way we treat language, and help people in the way we treat people in the future?” (Six weeks after Lizzo replaced her lyric, Beyoncé changed the same word on one of her new songs.)

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